August 6, 2021

The Gut Punch, the Aha Moment & Who will Speak for the Joshua Trees?


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*Ahoy, slightly salty language ahead.

Let’s think about life’s aha moments.

Have you ever blinked and everything changed? Has an otherwise minor event jolted your brain so hard that you feel like you’ve been punched in the gut? Has something inside you said, “Wake up, you idiot?”

If so, congratulations. You have just experienced an aha moment.

Good for you! An aha moment means you are growing.

I had a recent aha moment involving my Joshua tree. I found it lying dead, unceremoniously bulldozed over for an insipid strip mall.

I’ll come back to my Joshua tree, but perhaps your aha moment was different. Maybe you knew something was off in your romantic relationship but you couldn’t quite put your finger on it. Then one day came the gut punch. Your boyfriend fixed himself a drink but he refused to fix one for you when you asked him to. “Aha!” You felt a gut punch and realized that he’s a selfish bastard and the relationship was over. The “aha” wasn’t the drink. The “aha” was the sudden realization that he’s too selfish for you to be with anymore.

The Universe is constantly sending us messages. Sometimes we pick up on subtle clues early, but sometimes we don’t. By the time you are hit with the gut punch, the Universe has given up on being subtle. She’s coming at you like a bitch. When you feel the gut punch, that’s the aha moment.

An aha moment flips a switch in your brain, and there is no going back. When the Universe is kind enough to punch you in the gut, pay attention. It’s for your own good. You don’t need to be with that guy who is too selfish to bring you a drink. You deserve better.

Which brings me back to my Joshua tree. I adore Joshua trees.

It wasn’t really “my” Joshua tree, but it felt like it. It was a lone Joshua tree standing gnarly and proud on the edge of the open desert, on the north side of the busy highway. For 30 years I’d drive the highway to work every morning. If I allowed my eyes to briefly drift from the traffic, I would spy the lone Joshua tree off to my right, and I’d give it a little wink and a nod, as if to say to it, “I see you; you’re still there.” My Joshua tree looked like a sentry standing guard over its precious treasure, the open desert.

I watched my Joshua tree grow bit by bit, year by year, an enduring symbol of the Mojave Desert where I live.

It was one of those multi-branched beauties that reached out unevenly and gangly. Surrounded by civilization, a tire store to the east and a strip mall across the road, this patch of open desert belonged to the Joshua tree. Its branches stretched improbably to the west, as if to say “this is my desert.” It was probably close to 100 years old.

Over the years I hadn’t been paying sufficient mind to the Universe. She had tried so hard to get my attention but I kept ignoring her. I was always preoccupied by my work as I drove that stretch of highway. I wanted a promotion and I wanted it badly. I let the fleeting moment of love for this tree, this wink and nod, pass me by each day as I drove the highway to my office job. I wanted my work to be sufficiently recognized so that I could move upward in the corporate hierarchy. I was denied the promotion over and over, but I couldn’t see the forest for the trees. I cared too much about being validated by others. With each rejection, the Universe was sending me a message. I was not receptive.

Other than the daily wink and nod, I continually ignored the Joshua tree as I drove the highway. The Universe was trying to reach me via denied promotions. I never got the promotion and I didn’t get the message, again and again. Each time I was shot down, I got back up again, certain that next time would be the charm. I still wasn’t receptive to the Universe.

Several times in those 30 years I’d drive past that Joshua tree while sanctimoniously ruminating on how unfair life was. It never dawned on me that the Universe was trying to reach me to tell me that a promotion is just external validation, and what other people think of me really should be none of my business. It didn’t dawn on me because the Joshua tree was still standing resolutely, waiting for someone to save it. I’d go through the routine: wink, nod, ignore.

The day I was wallowing in my privileged, un-promoted funk after my most recent rejection, I drove past my Joshua tree. A low orange construction fence surrounded my Joshua tree’s natural patch of desert. To my horror, I saw empty blue sky where my gnarly old Joshua tree should have been. This magnificent specimen, whose wink and nod spurred me on for three decades, was unceremoniously lying on its side behind the fence.

I was shocked. Aha! That’s what we do to beautiful, stately old Joshua trees. We knock them over to make room for strip malls. There are rules to protect old Joshua trees, but the rules didn’t protect this one. It’s gone forever.

Finally, the Universe said to me, via this dead Joshua tree, this aha moment, “You’re a selfish bastard. You care more about your white male privileged promotion than you care about your planet.”

You know what? The Universe was right. I was in a funk because I had just been denied a promotion I deserved. My privileged sorry ass was feeling “woe is me” because I didn’t get what I wanted—in a life in which I have mostly got what I wanted. My “aha” jolted me into acute awareness. We’re killing our planet and I’m down on myself because I didn’t get a deserved promotion.

I finally got the message. Preoccupied with my own ego, I had previously been too dense to feel the “aha” gut punch. I now realize that the Universe was telling me it was time to do something else. I had refused to listen; I had my own plans. Damn the Universe, full speed ahead!

I have lived in the Mojave Desert for over 35 years. The high desert’s big sky, wide open spaces, and scraggly rocky hills are beautiful beyond measure. The way the shadows dance across the mountains as the sun rises and sets can move a romantic heart like mine better than the reflective glow of the lights of Paris on the Seine.

The Mojave’s most endearing symbol of all is the Joshua tree. Joshua trees grow nowhere else. They are strong but sensitive suckers. Joshua trees can withstand the searing heat and the roaring desert wind, but they grow slowly and they don’t like to be bothered by human activity. Joshua trees are our canary in a coal mine. The twin forces of climate change and overdevelopment are killing them off. If Joshua trees go away, it won’t be long before humanity follows.

Some Joshua trees rise over 40 feet tall. Their long spindly arms branch out haphazardly, extending outward over open desert. The pointy ends remind me of the old brushes I used to clean my razor with in the old days. Left alone, Joshua trees can live hundreds of years. They are adorable, and I love them.

My Joshua tree could have been spared. The developers could easily have incorporated my Joshua tree into a fine landscape design which brought out the desert charm. Instead, it was plowed over for a strip mall that will look just like every other strip mall from California to Florida and every place in between.

Isn’t that what we do in America? We make every place look like every other place.

Scientists think that at the present rate of global warming, Joshua trees will stop reproducing by 2100. After that, as the existing trees die, Joshua trees will fade from the planet until they no longer exist. We don’t need to spur the process along by knocking over the perfectly healthy ones.

So now I know. I don’t need a promotion. I don’t want a promotion anymore. I have a different job to do. Someone needs to speak for the trees. It might as well be me.



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